Moving beyond Leftist sects

Left Luggage

Our essential reading for the weekend is a new article by The Commune’s Dave Spencer which aims to draw some lessons from his decades of experience with far-left groups. It’s a little heavy on obscure and now obsolete sects, but at its core is a searing analysis of the problems of vanguardist parties and the Left’s methods of organising in general:

A key feature of the failed politics of the Left is its aping of the hierarchical and adversarial politics of the bourgeoisie. Without exception the parties and groups on the Left were and are bureaucratic. They conduct policy-making in a Machiavellian manner, doing deals behind the backs of the members. Internally their regimes are undemocratic and characterised by bullying and the use of personal abuse. Our politics has to be the opposite — open and democratic and comradely. This will not be easy because we are not used to it. We have to make a conscious effort.

Another major problem is that far left parties usually have split purposes. You can’t effectively build a genuine mass organization when your real objective is to recruit for the party. A emphasis on recruiting means the moderates will be pushed out and the focus will be on appealing to the far left fringe only. And you can’t build a mass organization that way. In fact, by such tactics, you’ve insured that you can never do that. Which is what their leaders actually want, as a mass organization means they would lose power.

It’s time for the left to stop blaming everyone but itself for its obvious and huge failures. Look, economies are reeling. It’s achingly apparent that most are getting shafted while a few get wealthy. The system clearly is not working.

Yet the response from the Left has mostly been incoherence and inept silence. It doesn’t know what to do with this almost perfect organizing opportunity. When it’s not stumbling around trying to make Marxist ideas fit the current situation (Dammit, they have to fit. “Marx said, I believe it, that settles it”), it’s wasting precious time with the usual idiotic factional fights. Capitalism will surely tremble when it learns that The Workers for Socialism and Liberation have split from the Socialist Revolutionary Faction over the Cuba Question. Right.

Again, I return to Saul Alinsky. When he organized Back of the Yards in Chicago (inventing community organizing in the process) he would start an organization, provide advice when needed, but in a crucial difference from the far left, he let those in the community run it. He wasn’t trying to build a personal power base or force across a particular political ideology. He let the people in the communities be in charge. Maybe that’s why he was successful. And why the far left right now isn’t.


  • The question raised then is how does the Left manage to build itself to where it’s in play in elections here in the States? Obamaism has been the only really successful mass movement in the US in many years, and it’s for and about one person (well, and maybe the wife and kids). How does a true bottom up mass movment transform itself into a political force for longer than a couple of years?

  • Dave Riley

    If what you say is correct, Bob, then these habits on the left should have been transcended by the Green Party wave that spread across the globe these last 25 years. With out the supposed baggage of ideology, without the presumed habits of stolid organising structures, ‘greenism’ supposedly isn’t limited by the myopia you insist is the lot of the Marxist groupuscules.

    So if your diagnosis is correct then the Greens are it — at least in comparison to the Marxist groups. But if you think the Greens have failed too — which I know you do — did they fail for the same, or similar, reasons as you insist the Marxian groups have? Are the Greens free of stultifying (pro Democrat?) ideology, factionalism, undemocratic practice,etc?

    The complication is that politics is constrained by the political moment and history shapes what you get.

    You reference to Dave Spencer’s polemic on (of all things) “the Campaign for a new Marxist Party” is totally exotic. Who, outside that shallow milieu of London based sects , are actually campaigning for a “new” Marxist Party? The complication is that England as well as the United States are political backwaters in regard to forging new party formations. True, in the case of England, this is primarily due to entrenched sectarianism as London, in my estimation, is Sect Central.

    Both countries are way behind most of the rest of Western World in regard to new party initiatives. To then generalise such local tardiness as applying to the rest of the far left ,regardless of country of activity, is hardly salient. Better I would think to monitor and report on what is indeed happening rather than simply complain or insist that its in the species DNA.

    Across the Channel from the UK , a new broad party of the left has been formed only this year — the New Anti-capitalist Party — and in Germany, the new party there, The Left (Die Linke) is now registering 10 % in the polls and has outmatched the German Greens in support.

    In the case of the NPA the driving force in its formation has been a quintessential Marxist org — the LCR — a formation that was born at the Paris barricades in 1968.

    Spencer’s tragedy — is similar to that which bears down on those who inhabit MarxMail — that they’ve been through the political mill and are now registered Exers.

    The problem is that no new initiative, no new formation, no break through, has happened or will ever happen by just talking or complaining about it. You can talk up idealised structures and forms as much as you like — albeit “bottom up”, “from below”, grass roots” or what have you — but it takes people doing stuff — it takes activists — to forge a new political reality.

    For anything new to happen — such as in the US — a certain level of conscious effort has to be engaged by activists who think they have a perspective that can win out.

    Personally I don’t see that happening there in the US without the support of a layer of activists who are now currently members of the far left orgs and the Green Party. That layer will move, I suggest, in a new direction if they can see that such a new formation is a viable option at the present time and that such an initiative will tick a few boxes that mesh with their aims in the long term. That’s why overseas examples are so important.

    Spencer’s handicap, I believe, is that he is stuck with the English far left on his doorstep. Nonetheless, I believe that there is motion even there of a nature that he fails to register.

    He also fails to note the weak state of the English left today compared to the past halcyon years he eulogizes. That’s is a major complication. Maybe, once the Tories win at the next election — the English far left will take stock of its destructive habituations.

  • DJ

    “The problem is that no new initiative, no new formation, no break through, has happened or will ever happen by just talking or complaining about it. You can talk up idealised structures and forms as much as you like — albeit “bottom up”, “from below”, grass roots” or what have you — but it takes people doing stuff — it takes activists — to forge a new political reality.”

    For once, Dave and I agree on something.

    The problem with bottom-up organizing is that you get answers you didn’t expect. That’s why most people with political ambitions avoid it. What if the answer the grass-roots gives isn’t yours?

    But grass-roots organizing is alive and well in many parts of the world, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Nepal. Generally they don’t seek to form political parties because the political system itself corrupts. (Those who run for office successfully usually do so because they lust for power.) More often, grass-roots movements provide an alternative to the politcal arena, a local political structure that operates neither in tandem with nor in opposition to national politics, but as an alternative to it.

    The same type of organizing is entirely possible in the U.S., but no one really wants it. I think that’s because the answers the existing parties put forward (left and right) are so tired that a grass-roots initiative can’t help but reject them all.

    • > The problem is that no new initiative, no new formation, no break through, has happened or will ever happen by just talking or complaining about it

      Whenever I criticize Marxism, Dave generally does say something like the above. As if that answers much, and really, it’s a bit of a red herring, isn’t it? Besides, if you say “don’t analyze, utilize”, you are analyzing. As if any successful political agenda hasn’t been preceded by plenty of analyzing and thought first.

      So we should all wait then, for the Deus Ex Machina to appear and then magically The People will start organizing themselves?

      DJ: But doesn’t grass-roots organizing has to get involved with politics, else it won’t really accomplish much at a mass level?

      Dave: In the US, the Green Party consensus style of governing insures that a small cadre who can game the system will stay in control. Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” explains this in detail. And in my opinion, for Marxism to remain relevant in the 21st Century it needs to re-examine its core values, stop repeating the same tired slogans over and over, and reinvent itself. That doesn’t mean selling out at all, rather it means presenting what it believes in a way that resonates with people now.

      It’s great the New Anti-Capitalist Party is making gains in Germany. But unfortunately there’s nothing remotely like that in the States now.

      • DJ

        “But doesn’t grass-roots organizing has to get involved with politics, else it won’t really accomplish much at a mass level?”

        There is a point at which grass-roots and the political arena intersect, and the grass-roots movement has to make a choice. Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, after 50 years of national grass-roots organizing and work, came to that place. It considered becoming a political party and rejected the idea. It considered fielding a presidential candidate and rejected that idea also. Instead, it decided to take a dual approach: (1) set up a parallel democratic system and (2) use grassroots pressure to initiate a constitutional convention. These efforts were interrupted by the government crackdown associated with the endgame of the war, and it will take several years to know whether they are successful and in what ways.

        But the real point is, they were organizing for 50 years, and having an impact on the country, before that crossroads was reached. As you know, they helped bring about the 2002 cease fire agreement by bringing grassroots pressure to bear, and no political party or formal political involvement was required.

        • Let’s hope it works. It’s a great idea and model for organizing.

  • DJ

    It DOES work. Everywhere it’s been tried, it works.

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